The Ivy League wanted student-athletes exactly like Kevin Rooney ’04. Rooney shined on the football field for the Red, playing on the defensive line during his time with Cornell, collecting 35 tackles and four sacks — tops of the team — during his senior season.
In the classroom, Rooney’s star shined even brighter. As a history major in the College of Arts and Sciences, Rooney had a 3.89 GPA, graduated from Cornell in eight semesters and eventually attended Stanford Law School, where he graduated in 2009.
However, Rooney felt that one thing was left unfinished: his football career. During his freshman season in 2000, Rooney injured his shoulder and decided to sit out the remainder of the season with a medical redshirt, maintaining a year of athletic eligibility in the National Collegiate Athletic Association. At the time, Rooney said he thought he would stay a tenth semester to play out that last season. That the team went 1–9 his senior season only further cemented the decision to stick around for another year for Rooney.
The Cornell University Institute for Public Affairs accepted Rooney into their master’s program for Public Administration on academic merit, without athletic consideration or influences. On track to graduate early, Rooney put in his application for his robes when he received the shocking news: the Ivy League would not let him play for his alma mater, despite him being enrolled in a graduate program on campus.
“If I hadn’t filed my application for graduation, then asked my parents to pay and asked my family to take on another semester’s worth of debt and incur those fees, then I could play,” Rooney said. “Because I didn’t, and because I tried to save my family the money knowing that I wanted to go to law school, then I couldn’t play.”
It was not the fact that Rooney was a graduate student that prevented him from playing — it was that he had graduated and his final season would not have been within eight semesters of his original enrollment.
“It’s a frustrating thing and what I had to do,” Rooney said. “I loved Cornell and I came back for my graduate program, but what would’ve been my ninth semester, I’m sitting in the stands watching five or six of my friends, who are fifth years because they were still undergraduates. That was the only difference, they still had [undergraduate] coursework to complete and I had already completed my coursework.”
Most schools in the country allow their athletes to sit out more or all games in a season for another year of athletic eligibility, allowing students to stretch out their four years or requirements over five years or enroll in graduate school. At athletic powerhouses such as the University of Alabama and the University of Southern California, this is a common practice. There are only eight schools in the country that do not allow this.
All eight of them are in the Ivy League.
An Idealistic Policy
The Ivy League, as a collective conference, firmly supports the importance of amateurism in college sports. The 1954 Ivy Group Agreement, a document agreed upon by all of the presidents of the universities in the conference, reads that “[the Ivy League] requires that undue strain upon players and coaches be eliminated and that they be permitted to enjoy the game as participants in a form of recreational competition rather than as professional performers in public spectacles.”
Among the areas where the Ivy League differentiates itself from the rest of collegiate athletics is in its athlete eligibility policies. The policy currently states that students are expected to use all four years of their eligibility for varsity sports in their first eight terms of enrollment and the first four seasons of that sport. Requests to use eligibility in a ninth academic term or fifth season require a waiver that needs to be approved by the conference.
“Coaches may not manipulate or motivate a student’s enrollment pattern to put off or to secure eligibility in some specific season; students are expected not to alter their academic or enrollment patterns in order to change the seasons in which they compete,” the policy reads.
The policy explicitly delineates that students who have completed the requirements for a “baccalaureate or equivalent degree” are not eligible to play sports. Students who complete their degrees in fewer than four years are eligible to compete in athletics during their four years of enrollment if they attend graduate school at the same institution.
One of the prominent lines on the Ivy League’s rules page draws out the conference’s ultimate goal: limiting conflict between a student-athlete’s pursuit of school and sports. “The basic intent of the original agreement [of the Ivy League] was to improve and foster intercollegiate athletics while keeping the emphasis on such competition in harmony with the educational purpose of the institutions,” the policy reads.
Even as the conference’s big-picture goals have shifted from decade to decade, finding this “harmony” between education and athletics remains especially important to all of the schools in the Ivy League, said Cornell Athletic Director Andy Noel in an interview with The Sun.
“It’s very important that the top athletes really are determined to take advantage of what an Ivy League education offers them,” Noel said. “It’s also important that to compete, that those students are preparing for the rest of their life and their academic and athletic pursuits have really high goals.”
While the policy on paper has the intention of allowing student-athletes to pursue academics and athletic harmoniously, with an emphasis on studies, whether or not the policy proves effective in practice is up for debate.
Hypocrisy in Practice
On paper, the Ivy League holds academics to a much higher standard than athletics. The universities, in theory, want to ensure that academics have a stronger emphasis before athletic competition. The 1954 Ivy Group Agreement reads, “the [institutions of the Ivy League] entered into an agreement regarding football with the purpose of maintaining the values of the game in the service of higher education.”
Over six decades since the agreement, Ivy League athletic directors still often speak about this emphasis of academics for student-athletes.
“While winning is great — and we all like to win — we are really educators,” Harvard Athletic Director Bob Scalise told The Harvard Crimson in 2014. “If you measure success solely by winning, maybe you are missing out on something [by not redshirting], but that’s not what we are all about.”
That idealistic viewpoint, however, has not exactly played out in practice — most prominently at Harvard. In 2012, the course “Introduction to Congress” — a class of 125 students, half of whom were athletes on the men’s basketball, baseball and football teams — was racked by a cheating scandal, according to The Boston Globe. The Harvard Administrative Board, the body that rules on individual cheating cases, sent an internal email to deans saying that fall athletes should “consider taking [a leave of absence] before their first game.”
Taking this step allowed athletes to prevent a loss of a year of athletic eligibility. Harvard men’s basketball co-captains Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry both decided to take leaves of absences and returned to play out all four years of eligibility at Harvard. In essence, Harvard administrators suggested that students delay their academic progress and choose an extra year of potential success on the court in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Other universities in the conference have previously instituted similar practices. Princeton University suspended defensive back Jay McCareins during his sophomore year after he allegedly forgot to cite large portions of a paper and gave him a mark of academic dishonesty on his transcript.
After returning from his suspension, Princeton reinstated McCareins into the football program and did not lose his year of athletic eligibility, allowing him to play all four years for the Tigers.
Meanwhile, even as other collegiate coaches recruited Rooney to potentially play out his eligibility, he decided that his best option was to continue his education in the Ivy League. Rooney prioritized receiving his master’s degree and, as a result, gave up a year of football eligibility. He sat in the stands and watched McCareins — who spent a brief period in NFL training camp after graduating from Princeton — back on the field following an academic suspension from Princeton.
“If you cheat and get kicked out for a year,” Rooney said, “well, then you can come back and get your eligibility back.”
Forced Out of the Ivy League
Errick Peck ’13 thought he was going to have the opportunity to return to Cornell to finish out his last year of athletic eligibility. During the summer heading into his junior season, Peck injured his knee and needed to sit out for the season; subsequently, he faced a couple of options, the same options that many Ivy League students face when put in similar circumstances. Peck could add another minor of academic interest to “slow down” his progress towards a bachelor’s degree which would allow him to stay an extra year, withdraw from school for a year to play out all four years at Cornell or look to transfer for a graduate season outside of the Ivy League.
Peck, a student in the School of Hotel Administration, chose the first option, with a slight caveat — he decided to add on a development sociology minor in addition to his undergraduate degree. Peck said he felt especially interested in the minor, so the decision, in the short term, seemed to benefit his education. Peck subsequently put in a petition to play his fifth year at Cornell as an undergraduate student while taking on extra courses to further his education.
“It would’ve been perfect,” Peck said.
And then it was not. A third of the way into his senior season with the Red, Cornell head men’s basketball coach Bill Courtney sat Peck down and told him that the hotel school wanted Peck to graduate on time and would not allow him to stretch out his degree to five years.
“The rug was pulled out from under me,” Peck said. “I wasn’t even prepared for it.”
Suddenly, Peck had two months to find another school to finish out his collegiate career. Additionally, Peck had to take 22 credits his last semester at Cornell in order to complete his major and newly added minor.
“That was really difficult, especially because you’re in the middle of a season with your teammate trying to win a championship,” Peck said. “Your mind is elsewhere.”
While taking on a significant academic course load, Peck also had to scramble to put together recruiting trips, ultimately settling on Purdue University after also visiting Loyola University and Xavier University. The process wore him down.
“You have to understand that it was such a quick notice and when I went on campus to Purdue, students weren’t on campus because it was such quick notice,” Peck said. “Usually when you have a recruit trying to transfer, you do it in the fall where kids will be and it is a lot easier for coaches. This was such an abrupt, rushed thing that I was trying to get to all of these schools as fast as I possibly can in order to pick out the best for me. That’s difficult in itself.”
The eligibility guidelines set forth by the Ivy League pushed Peck towards the decision to stay in school and tack on more courses to further his education. When his college at Cornell decided to not allow him to stay for a fifth year, it threw him into a recruiting frenzy that nobody — neither Peck nor the recruiting colleges — were ready for.
“It kind of backfired,” Peck said.
In recent years, Cornell athletic programs have been significantly affected by the eligibility rules. Last year, Cornell basketball players Shonn Miller ’15 and Galal Cancer ’15 were both forced to transfer to the University of Connecticut and Kent State, respectively. Miller sat out his junior season after offseason shoulder surgery while Cancer sat out his junior year in order to catch up on his academics, making schoolwork his priority over basketball. The two situations allowed both players to maintain a year of athletic eligibility.
Beyond basketball, Cornell baseball pitchers Brian McAfee ’15 and Kellen Urbon ’15 both transferred to Duke University for graduate seasons after missing significant portions of their junior and sophomore seasons, respectively, due to injury.
The rules have also impacted student-athletes beyond Cornell. In Ivy basketball, Yale center Jeremiah Kreisberg transferred to Northwestern University after his senior season due to the rules. Brown center Rafael Maia transferred to Pittsburgh for a graduate season. Columbia guard Grant Mullins may need to transfer for a graduate season after missing the duration of the 2014–15 campaign. A list of track athletes on a website called HepsTrack includes 61 student-athletes who were required to transfer as a result of the Ivy League eligibility rules. No school is exempt from the effects of the conference’s eligibility rules.
Kreisberg said he feels that even though he had an incredibly positive experience as a scholarship athlete for Northwestern while playing basketball in the Big 10, players in the Ivy League should, at the very least, have the option to stay.
“I think it’s bizarre that this is the only conference that won’t let players stay,” Kreisberg said. “I’m not saying that the Ivy League should make exceptions for students to get into graduate school, but if the student has an option to get into a graduate program, then they should be able to.”
Rooney not only held the option to go to graduate school at his alma mater, but he also received admission on his own academic merits without the influence of athletics.
“I wanted to continue to study and I had been accepted to this graduate program, and I wanted to continue to play with my teammates and my best friends. That was the hard part about it,” Rooney said. “I was trying to do the right thing and I felt like I got shortchanged for it, especially at a place like this where you expect that we look at not just the letter of the late, but why we have this rule.
“If it’s not serving the goals of our state mission, then let’s look to change it,” he added. “I don’t know why that didn’t happen 12 years ago, and I don’t know why it hasn’t happened since.”
The conference forces out many students athletes, such as Kreisberg and Peck. Seven student-athletes who went through the process of transferring as a result of the eligibility rules in the last three years all told The Sun that they would have considered staying at their current schools. Peck said he has no doubt in his mind that he would have chosen to stay at his alma mater and paid tuition rather than go to another school on scholarship.
“It seemed like you worked so hard to get into a system, to fit comfortably into a system, to know all of these guys,” Peck said. “Then to have someone who has never met you before, who doesn’t know who you are, who looks at a piece of paper and says that they don’t think it’ll work and just deny it.”
Cornell football safety Rush Imhotep ’16, who tore his posterior cruciate ligament in his junior year and missed a significant portion of the season, decided to withdraw from classes for one semester to delay his graduation and to allow him to play out his last season of eligibility as a fifth-year senior.
“It wasn’t a hard decision. I wasn’t worried about not graduating with my class,” Imhotep said. “I knew Cornell was the school I wanted to play at. I wasn’t thinking about going to play for someone else.”
That decision is not as easy for others.
“I [thought about withdrawing from school] for a minute, and my mom took that consideration right out of my head,” Peck said. “That was that.”
“I was never going to drop out of school,” Kreisberg said. “That was something that I wasn’t going to do, especially knowing that I had these options after. I guess it would’ve been different if I didn’t have as desirable a place to take a fifth year, but I think it can be problematic for a lot of kids.”
The policy, for many athletes in this position, forced some to consider choosing athletics over academics in order to play out that last year of eligibility at their alma mater. Many have also chosen academics over athletics.
In a 2014 article in The Harvard Crimson, Harvard administrators defended the policy by arguing “that spots in their selective schools are in demand, and therefore athletes should not take one of those spots for an extra year for athletic reasons.” Student-athletes such as Rooney and Kreisberg, who looked into at a graduate program at Yale as a potential academic option, would not have taken up spots in undergraduate programs for athletic reasons.
Some schools in the Ivy League have significantly larger graduate programs than others. Schools such as Columbia, Harvard and Penn each have more than 10,000 students enrolled in graduate programs, while others such as Dartmouth, Brown and Princeton each have fewer than 2,500 students in graduate programs. The disparity in graduate program size, should the policy hypothetically be changed, could put the smaller schools of the conference at a disadvantage. This, however, has never been cited as a reason to keep the current policy in place.
“I really don’t know if the real thrust behind it is that, ‘Hey, if we let Cornell do this, they’re going to start dominating because they’re going to have all of these people and they’re going to get them into their graduate programs and it’ll be a recruiting edge,’” Rooney said of Cornell, which has the fourth largest graduate program in the Ivy League, followed closely by Yale. “You can’t play as a graduate student past your eighth semester and I don’t really understand why. I’ve never been given a good reason why. I’m still at a loss.”
‘It Doesn’t Have to Make Any Sense’
Rooney said he briefly considered a lawsuit against the Ivy League after hearing the decision of his athletic eligibility. While working for the NFL with the management council during his semester off before starting graduate studies at Cornell, Rooney looked into the viability into potential litigation against the conference. What he found was less than encouraging.
“It didn’t seem like I had much of a case, actually, under the way that we were looking at it in that an association can basically make its own rules and unless they’re discriminatory or in some way violate law, greater law or federal law or the state or federal constitution, they can do it,” Rooney said. “It doesn’t have to make sense.”
The overwhelming sentiment among athletes is that they simply want a choice in the matter. For some, such as Maia and Kreisberg, the experience of transferring proved to be positive. That, however, does not diminish the desire to have some option to remain at their alma mater as a graduate student.
“I wish I did have that option and that the Ivy League was just like other conferences that gave us that opportunity,” Maia said. “But I feel like a lot of student athletes, when we choose the Ivy League, we understand that they have their own set of rules.”
Many student-athletes also simply want an option to stay at their alma mater without having to compromise academically or athletically.
“If you open it up, is it open to abuse? Sure, it could be,” Rooney said. “But it is now in its current state and it is in a way that doesn’t guard against the abuse and the abuse, really, would not come from people like me who were trying to graduate earlier.”
All eight athletes The Sun interviewed expressed resignation over the Ivy League’s set of rules, citing its stature as “the Ivy League.”
“I’m sure that they have some sort of reason behind the madness,” McAfee said. “I sure would’ve liked the opportunity to stay [at Cornell] and play a fifth year.”
That reason, however, remains unclear.
“The philosophy behind the Ivy League rule boils down to not allowing student-athletes to intentionally delay their graduation for athletic reasons,” said Ivy League Assistant Executive Director for Compliance, Governance and Championships Megan Morrison in an interview with The Crimson in 2014 regarding why the policy exists.
However, Rooney said he does not believe this reasoning addresses how the policy affects students in practice.
“I don’t think it applies at all. I think it’s the reverse,” Rooney said. “I had good friends and teammates and some of them who were forced to take a semester off so that they could come back and do it instead of furthering their education … I don’t think that serves the stated goal or purpose of the rule. [The reasoning] doesn’t totally match up with the reality of the situation.”
Rooney’s predicament still brings back memories of frustration for Noel.
“Even though this situation occurred over a decade ago, the decision by the Ivy office still stings. It was particularly unsettling to have a policy in force that is counter to fundamental Ivy league philosophy that seeks to maximize student opportunity, both academic and otherwise, as opposed to limiting it,” Noel said. “The decision to disallow Kevin’s fourth year of intercollegiate football eligibility flew directly in the face of this concept. Ivy policy should promote student opportunity in both the curricular and extra-curricular arenas. Much education occurs outside the classroom and laboratory. Kevin was denied an opportunity, essential to his experience, within our league that purports to provide the opposite.”
Noel rocked back and forth in his chair as he mused about the losses that Cornell has seen from its student-athlete population in just the last year due to the conference’s eligibility rules. The policies, clearly, sit smack dab in the middle of the issues he thinks about every day. As he begins to find the words, he leans forward.
“I believe quite strongly that we should embrace our athletes and students and give them the option, if they graduate and have eligibility left, of staying at their alma mater, staying with their teammates, staying with their best friends and the professors that have impacted them the most,” Noel said. “We are forcing them elsewhere and it’s been happening for years.”